Morgan St. James on Character Development

My guest today is Morgan St. James who writes mysteries and recently released a non-fiction book, Tricks of the Trade, for writers. Please help her to feel at home here, while I guest on her blog. I am also over at the Blood Red Pencil talking about how much we writers love our characters, but first we have to make them real.
Make your characters three-dimensional
How many times have you read a novel characters seemed like paper dolls or overblown figures drifting in and out of scenes? Whether published or aspiring, we as writers all have a powerful tool ready to use at a moment’s notice—our experiences and emotions. 
You see, one of the most important qualities a fictional character can possess is to seem real to the reader. Forget about just stringing together a series of words describing physical attributes and how the character carries out routine or off-the-chart situations, all presented in flat narrative or overblown prose. Maybe you think the key is to spice it up with a few inner thoughts, but there is a lot more to creating someone your reader will believe—someone with feelings and emotions and a physical presence. Before you roll your eyes, crafting characters who seem real doesn’t have to be daunting. In fact it can be fun once you understand the reader sees events through the eyes of the players you have created for the story.
Putting life into physical descriptions
Remember adjectives, adverbs, similes and metaphors are your friends as long as they aren’t overused. Sprinkling them in just the right places sparks the reader’s imagination. It allows them to draw parallels to familiar images and actually see them in their mind’s eye. Overuse them, however, and it minimizes everything. Why? Because with each new spouting of a simile, metaphor or more adjectives or adverbs than should ever be huddled together in the same sentence, it becomes trite and the reader wonders how many more of these they can endure. Everyone draws their own picture of the characters, but you can give them the framework. It always amazes me how wrong the casting is sometimes when a book is made into a movie. The current rumor is that Tom Cruise will play Jack Reacher, Lee Child’s former military MP who drifts around the country getting into situations and helping people. The problem for me: Reacher is 6’5” and often his size is part of the story. The reality: Tom Cruise is box office. The vision of Reacher that Lee Child has planted in my mind definitely is not 5’7” Tom Cruise. 
Tap into your own impressions rather than clichés
To avoid clichés, reach into your own experiences and picture things that impressed you. Put the image into your own words and apply it to something about your character. For example, the woman had shining blonde hair. If it was straight, did it just hang there or shimmer like a golden shawl? 
Why would I choose the simile of a golden shawl for this example? Because I pictured a former business partner and friend who had hair like that. I could never look at her without thinking of a beautiful silk shawl. Let’s say the hair isn’t straight, but curly. Is it in tight ringlets perhaps described as coiled little ringlets like the fur on a pampered poodle? Maybe this blonde hair undulates in luxurious waves reminiscent of waves kissed by the glow of the sun as they push toward shore. 
In each of these examples we picture a different person. And, every reader will have their unique vision of that person. Simply saying “her straight blonde hair” or “curly blonde hair” would never launch imagination in the same way.
Creating your own reference file
So often these images are fleeting, triggered by something someone said, something we remembered or saw, but even with Herculean effort, we can’t pull them back when we need them. They lurk right at the edge of recognition, then slip away. One way to capture them is to keep a log. When an image like that pops into your mind, distinct images and emotions ride on their coattails, leaving you with a describable impression. Reach for the little spiral notebook—we all should have one of those—and flip to the section you’ve set aside for just such visions. Using the same example as above, assume you imagined hair badly in need of care. Maybe you would make a note like this: her blonde hair reminded me of a field of hay long past the time it should have been harvested.
A favorite that I jotted down, just because I liked the sound of it, was “like an old dowager attempting to keep her dignity.” It was from some old 1940’s movie on late night TV, but the image stuck with me. Later I used it in Devil’s Dance to create a visual image of a shabby sofa with arm caps covering the worn spots. A description of a dowager wasn’t related to a sofa, but the image of hanging onto the last bit of dignity was clear. 
Drawing upon your own emotional experiences
When placing a character in a situation that is emotional, whether the scene is one of love at first sight, terror, or delight at seeing a new baby, the deep emotional reaction must be felt by the reader. That reaction isn’t one dimensional. It’s both physical and mental. You can soar to the heights or drop to the depths.  You might swell with pride or be reduced to tears. That is the mental side. What are the physical reactions? Does the stomach twist in spasms? Is the person so happy they actually feel a bit lightheaded? That’s where the writer becomes the method actor.
Write what you know
You’ve probably heard that saying so many times you’re sick of it.  Still, the majority of us have had experiences that produce these emotions and physical reactions. Your own experience may have no direct relationship whatsoever to the actual mechanics of the scene you’re in the process of creating, but the feelings are the same. 
Think back to those times and immerse yourself in the memory. For example, the odds are you have never been threatened at gunpoint as your scene now dictates, but have you been in an accident? Have you taken tests at a doctor’s office and awaited the results? Have you walked through a dark, isolated area, then heard a noise? What did you feel? Terror. What does your victim feel? Terror. Again, it’s not the same situation, but terror creates a set of physical and mental reactions, regardless of the situation.
Your notebook becomes your personal databank
As you picture the scene, write down your own feelings in the “Experiences” section of your notebook. Let your mind roam free. Capture the emotions that surge back as memories take hold. Now you have a record of what that emotion feels like. Surprisingly, it can be applied to a multitude of manuscripts, because the basics are the same. Let’s say the reaction was surging thoughts. The only difference, is they become the thoughts that apply to that particular situation and will vary with the storyline. But, the thoughts still surge.
Your own experiences breathe life into your characters, so preserve them and use them to create a full range of scenes from tender to heart-pounding.
Morgan St. James co-authors the comical Silver Sisters Mysteries with her sister, Phyllice Bradner, and just released a story collection The Mafia Funeral and Other Stories. She is the editor of the monthly “Writers’ Tricks of the Trade” newsletter/magazine, writes a twice weekly column for Spotlight on Tuesday in Las Vegas and Wednesday in Los Angeles and Writers’ Tricks of the Trade on Thursday in Las Vegas and Friday in Los Angeles. Her new book Writers’ Tricks of the Trade: 39 Things You Need to Know About the ABC’s of Writing Fiction, was inspired by response to her columns.  Visit her at her various websites, and Follow her on Facebook and Twitter@EMSWriter and @LVWritingExamin.

17 thoughts on “Morgan St. James on Character Development”

  1. Very good post. Makes me want to go back through my own writing and look at it with a new eye.

    Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher? My husband will not like that. He’s a huge Reacher fan and Cruise does not make even me think “Reacher”.

  2. Hi Morgan, long time no see! Character development is character arc is a skill that takes time to develop as a writer. A purposely turned back the hands of time and made my characters a few years younger than originally planned to make them a bit more immature. I needed to have them grow in the area of character development so I made them less experienced in life. I think this was the right thing to do.

  3. I agree about Tom Cruise not being a good choice for Reacher. My husband and I are huge fans of the series and Cruise is not anything like Reacher. According to Lee Child’s website, the project with Cruise is a go. Too bad.

  4. Sorry I haven’t popped in more often today, but I was facing some deadlines. I love it when I’ve been able to give tips that really help and I’m so glad to see your comments. I hope you’ll visit Writers Tricks of the Trade at to see the article Maryann posted there. It is a good laugh with some very valid info.

    As for Tom Cruise playing Jack Reacher, it’s like typical casting I think. Get the one who’s hot at the time. I remember a story that some old show biz friends liked to tell back in the days when Sidney Portier was big box office. They said they were sitting around trying to figure out who to cast as Snow White in a film. Someone said, “Get Portier. He’s hot.” Another person said, “But he’s a black man. How can he play Snow White?” The first man looked at him like he was a dunce. “Rewrite, why do you ask?”

    Who do you think was grossly miscast in a part and why?

  5. I had never heard that story about Portier, Morgan. But I have been around enough folks from the film biz in Hollywood to believe it. Like so much in the publishing world, it is not about story it is about marketing. Who can sell this product? Who cares about the product?

    When I told my husband about the casting for Reacher, he choked on his dinner. We are both huge fans of the series, but can’t see Cruise in the role. If you go to Lee Child’s website there is a picture in the upper left that is supposed to be Reacher. Doesn’t look anything like most of us imagine.

  6. Excellent points. Good characters can carry a mediocre plot, but with very few exceptions, mediocre characters won’t make up for a good story.

    As for Reacher … Hollywood wants to make money, and there are probably a kazillion people who will go see Tom Cruise, and another kazillion who will go to see how “bad” he is as Reacher.

    Meanwhile, Lee Child is taking the money… He’s going to be at a couple of conferences I’m attending this year, and I’m sure the discussion will be animated.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  7. I’m jealous, Terry. I would love to meet Lee Child. I once had a reader e-mail me and compare my writing to his. Needless to say I was honored, yet humbled, too. He is such a terrific writer, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone putting me on his level.

    Regarding the casting. I realize all the business reasons it is Cruise who will play the role, but the idealist in me still wishes folks making that decision could be more true to the character.

  8. Maryann, if you go to Lee Child’s website, go look at the interview he gave about Tom Cruise as Reacher. There were a lot of good and valid points about how movies are made, and how actors are chosen. This one was 7 years in the making. Child said that Cruise would be 100% in the character department, but only 90% in height. It was an interesting interview.

  9. Thanks for pointing that out, Terry. I will go check out that interview. I guess because I’m an actor and a director I may look at casting with a stricter eye. To me an actor has to fit the role visually as well as being able to capture the essence of the character.

  10. I met Lee Child a few years ago when Left Coast Crime was in Los Angeles. He is really cool and very much like Reacher in some ways. Said he traveled light for years and just bought new clothes and threw away what was past its prime. I trust his judgement, but still don’t picture Tom Cruise as Reacher as a fan of Child’s books.

    But, here’s another angle. For those who are not fans of the books, or more ideally have never read one, I could see Cruise in the part. I have to admit he could pull it off if you aren’t picturing a guy who is 6’5″. I guess we have to keep an open mind. I have been hooked on Chil’d books since reading the first one.

    I don’t know if anyone is old enough to remember the book and movie Exodus. That was the first casting shocker I remember. Paul Newman, while a fabulous actor, was to Ari Ben Kanan as sugar is to salt. He was so far removed, despite a good performance, that having read the book I couldn’t enjoy the movie. And Eva Marie Saint…well, enough said. Definitely not the book character she played.

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